World Press Freedom Day: The Global Free Speech Recession Continues

Ian Vásquez

Today is the 30th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day and, as the Washington Post points out, “there seems little to celebrate.” Indeed, press freedom has been on a years‐​long decline around the world and the situation is getting worse. The number of journalists imprisoned hit a record last year according to the Committee to Protect Journalists and in their annual survey of press freedom, Reporters Without Borders finds that “the environment for journalism is ‘bad’ in seven out of ten countries, and satisfactory in only three out of ten.”

Our findings in the Human Freedom Index also document the long‐​term decline of global freedom of expression.

It is the category of freedom that saw the largest decline in the past two decades, besides freedom of movement, which was suddenly and dramatically affected by the COVID pandemic. The fall in free expression is part of what free speech scholars such as Jacob Mchangama have called a global free speech recession. That recession includes rich and poor countries, democracies and non‐​democracies, and every region of the world.

The greatest violations have come from autocracies, but free speech is also coming under threat in liberal democracies. That includes, significantly, the threat to the culture of free speech that is harmful in itself and is inevitably upstream from the law as Mchangama and Greg Lukianoff have pointed out. Relatively free societies should be especially on guard against that kind of intolerance.

I take this occasion to highlight the case of Jimmy Lai, publisher of the now‐​closed Apple Daily and currently in jail in Hong Kong. We at Cato are honored to award him the Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty. (Read more about Jimmy Lai’s fight for Hong Kong’s freedoms and the award ceremony on May 18 here.) The fall in freedom of expression in Hong Kong has indeed been dramatic (see graph) with Jimmy Lai being one of thirteen media people currently imprisoned there. Their persecution, and that of other journalists around the world, is a vivid reminder of what’s at stake, as Cato Letter No. 15 eloquently put it:

“Freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty; they prosper and die together: And it is the terror of traitors and oppressors, and a barrier against them.”

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